Star Trek: Tech advances, courtesy of Gene Roddenberry

In 1966, NBC released an iconic but short-lived series that would inspire generations of inventors to bring about changes in our daily lives with technology that was once within the realms of strictly science fiction.
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Advances in Treknology

In September 1966, the NBC television network released an iconic but short-lived series that would inspire generations of inventors to bring about changes in our daily lives with technology that was once within the realms of strictly science fiction.

The original series, based on a "Wagon train to the Stars" western turned sci-fi adventure concept envisioned by Gene Roddenberry, Dorothy C Fontana, and Matt Jefferies, ran for a total of three seasons from 1966 to 1969. Many films and subsequent revival series have since graced television and film in the nearly 50 years since the airing of the initial pilot.

The original series was re-envisioned with a new cast as a major motion picture in 2009, and the sequel, Star Trek: Into Darkness, premieres this month, on May 16.

Image: Paramount Pictures

In the span of those four decades, many of the gadgets and technologies showcased in Star Trek and in the revival shows and feature films that followed it in the 1980s, 1990s, and the 2000s did eventually come to fruition.

In this gallery, we'll highlight some of the most important ones.

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The "Communicator"

Perhaps the most iconic of Trek gizmos that became reality was the device simply known as the "Communicator," a palm-sized walkie-talkie with a flip-out antenna that allowed crew members to communicate with each other while in the field, and allowed the Enterprise to geo-locate and communicate with the away team from orbit on any planet they happened to have beamed down on.

Image: Motorola

The real-life version of the "Communicator" became the mobile phone, which was invented by Dr. Martin Cooper of the Motorola corporation, and released in April 1973.

Cooper admitted to being inspired by the original Star Trek show as the driving force behind the device that now permeates virtually all of modern society. The original real-life "Communicator" was brick-sized, but Motorola eventually released the appropriately named StarTAC in 1996, which was a dead ringer for the Trek original.

Today, flip-style cell phones that look like the original Communicator have largely given way to more powerful touchscreen smartphones like the iPhone and the Samsung Galaxy, but without Star Trek, we probably wouldn't have seen either of them.

The true Communicator didn't use cell towers — it was able to broadcast over huge distances, and allowed crew members to communicate both planet-wide and to the ship in orbit without the use of any support infrastructure.

We haven't gotten there yet, and we sort of failed with mass adoption of global-capable Communicator tech with Iridium, but modern cell phones do permeate our lives, and we do have the ability now to locate each other with built-in GPS capabilities, which the Enterprise was able to do for its crew members.

In 2009, Google introduced the Latitude service, which allows anyone carrying a GPS-capable smartphone running Google Maps to be visually located by their friends, so we're getting closer to the "True" Trek Communicator.

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Image: Motorola

The Federation communications earpiece

The cell/mobile phone was not the only aspect of Trek communications technology that made it to reality.

The wireless earpiece, which both communications officer Lt. Uhura and science officer Spock were known to have used on a number of occasions on the show, also became a reality as the Bluetooth Headset, which is also a Motorola innovation.

Motorola Mobility was purchased by Google in August 2011.

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Flat-panel displays

Star Trek has had so many computer and information-related technologies showcased in it over the years that it's very hard to tell where the science starts and the fiction ends.

While many of the IT advances in Star Trek haven't made it yet — such as true artificial intelligence, as featured in the Enterprise's shipboard computer system or Lieutenant Commander Data, many aspects of Trek IT have managed to filter their way into our daily lives.

Display technology is probably the biggie.

While you can hardly credit Star Trek for inventing the CRT, you can certainly see how the show has probably inspired generations of engineers to create LCD flat screens and HD widescreen wall-mounted displays, which were simply called "Viewers" or "Viewscreens" on the original show.

Image: Samsung

It should probably also be mentioned that the telepresence technology using video feeds for ship-to-ship communication first shown in 1966 is now commonplace, using technologies such as Skype, Google Hangout, and Apple FaceTime in addition to corporate video conferencing products such as Microsoft Lync, Citrix GotoMeeting, Cisco WebEx, and Cisco Jabber.

However, it should be noted that social norms have limited their actual adoption, and voice communication, while now more advanced than ever before with the advent of VoIP and digital signal processing, is still the way most people like to do things if they aren't texting or emailing.

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Tablet computers

Image: Apple

My favorite of these display technologies is the PADD, or the Personal Access Display Device. Although the term was coined later in 1987 with the release of the Star Trek: The Next Generation series, it did actually make an appearance a few times in the original show, where it was used by various engineers and administrative staff.

Today, aspects of the PADD can be found in Apple's 9.7-inch and 7-inch iPad, dozens of Android-based tablets, and Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets, such as the Microsoft Surface.

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The Enterprise computer and data banks

In addition to advanced display technology, human/computer voice interaction as featured on the many Star Trek series has also been implemented in various forms.

While most of us do not interact with our computers by talking, voice dictation using products such as Nuance's NaturallySpeaking (originally developed at IBM) allows for limited and specialized application by using voice commands and voice dictation.

Image: Apple

"Expert" voice recognition systems used by airlines, telecommunications, and utility companies use voice recognition for accelerating call center screening. Although, when I use them, I tend to yell "Operator!" at the top of my lungs.

Apple's introduction of Siri in the iPhone 4, and Google's introduction of Google Now in Android 4.2, are "intelligent agents" that allow for retrieval of information from the internet using voice queries, and work eerily the way the original Enterprise computer did.

Star Trek's "Memory bank" technology, which enabled the crew and various alien civilizations to record and play back music and video in digital form, has also made its appearance as some of the most popular consumer electronic devices in the world — as iPods, portable media players, and digital video recorders, as well as Secure Digital and CompactFlash memory storage cards and the latest solid-state disk drives.

And the subspace Federation communications network and database that we've seen crew members use to access any kind of information at their fingertips is probably analogous to both the internet and the cloud.

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The "Sickbay" on the Enterprise was a medical science marvel, filled with all sorts of fantastic tools with the capability to diagnose virtually any ailment in existence and perform complex surgeries on life-threatened patients with virtually no blood spilled.

While we've got a long way to go until we get the full set of medical tools that was available to Dr. McCoy, quite a few of Trek's medical gizmos have left their influence on real-life healthcare technology.

The magical diagnostic bed that displayed all sorts of metrics on patient vital signs that was used on the original series did eventually come to fruition as various independent diagnostic and health monitoring equipment used in hospitals today.

Image: Hoana

One of those is the LifeBed, which is a near-dead ringer for Dr. McCoy's sickbay. Similar diagnostic equipment has been used aboard the International Space Station (ISS) and in mobile field hospitals in the military. Naturally, advanced medical imaging technologies inspired by the original series and Next Generation sickbays made their way into CT and MRI equipment, which are a staple of modern medical diagnosis.

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Hypospray and non-invasive surgery

McCoy's "Hypospray," which allowed for instantaneous, bloodless, and needle-free liquid injections, hasn't quite made it in terms of handheld portability yet to every medical office, but a real-life equivalent for use in mass-dosage scenarios exists as the jet injector, and is used for vaccinations by the Department of Defense and other government and relief agencies around the world.

The Bioject "ZetaJet", a real-life version of Dr McCoy's "Hypospray" device. Image: Bioject

While the truly non-invasive surgery employed on the original Star Trek and TNG shows for generalized use still remains largely science fiction, some procedures such as Stereotactic Radiosurgery for treating specific types of tumors, allow for non-invasive surgery on brain tissue using focused radiation beams.

And while the hand-held directed energy "Phaser" guns used for combat against hostile aliens still remain a fantasy, LASIK surgery using focused low-wattage lasers to correct vision is now well on its way to making eye glasses and contact lenses obsolete.

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The "Vorta Command" headset

First shown in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the command headset employed by the Dominion "Vorta" overseers of the brutal Jem'Hadar forces was used to have complete situational awareness while piloting their attack ships.

Today, we know this product as Google Glass.

google glass
Image: Google
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The "Replicator"

One of the most awe-inspiring technologies that has been in every single one of the Star Trek series has been the "Replicator," a device that is able to produce any object, of any complexity, either inorganic or organic in nature, whether it be food or machines, purely by combining raw matter and energy from patterns stored in the computer and re-arranging particles at a sub-atomic level.

In Star Trek, the "Replicator" was an offshoot of the "Transporter" technology that allowed for de-materialization and re-materialization of objects and beings at vast distances.

The Replicator, made by MakerBot, is a consumer-grade 3D printer. Image: MakerBot

While this sort of power over pure matter and energy is probably hundreds, if not thousands, of years beyond our current reach, the "Replicator" is here in a much more primitive form as the 3D printer, which can produce fairly complex objects for rapid prototype and manufacture using any number of materials, including plastics, metals, and also proteins and other organic substances.

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